A Matter of Control

Fish-owning customers often need a little hand-holding and a lot of education when it comes to learning the ins and outs of maintaining water quality.


Aquariums require maintenance, not the least of which is monitoring and controlling water quality. There are many parameters to consider in the aquarium, but water is among the most important. Fish will suffer and die if the water is not to their liking. Imagine trying to exist in a toxic environment that is slowly, almost imperceptibly, choking you to death. This is a scenario many fish endure because their owners are too busy or uninformed to know what they are doing to their fish. Well, guess who is in the best position to teach fish owners about the importance of water quality? Retailers, of course—they have the knowledge and the opportunity to educate fish owners on proper fish care and water maintenance.

Products that help customers keep their fish healthy may not be the biggest revenue generators, but they are extremely important. Frankly, very few stores do a good job of stressing the value of these items. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is these products’ lack of shelf appeal. Water-quality products are not things people want, they are things people buy because they must. You might liken it to visiting the dentist—spending good money on something you hate but you know you must do. The consequences of avoiding the dentist are usually quite severe, as are the consequences of not maintaining the proper water quality in your aquarium. 

Retailers that sell aquatic products and livestock should stress to customers the importance of being proactive. Use signage, point-of-sale (POS) material, handouts and personal recommendations from sales associates. In fact, employ every means possible to influence customers to regularly check the water quality in their aquariums and keep it stable by using products that achieve this goal. 

Without a doubt, the single most important thing that fish tank owners must do is make frequent partial water changes. Nothing works better than this, but it is usually the last thing people want to hear. There is no magic bullet for maintaining proper water quality, and no one product is an acceptable substitute for a water change.

But as a retailer, how can you make money on people who are merely changing water? First, they need equipment to adequately perform water changes. Second, raw water will kill fish, so everybody needs a product that will take out or deactivate the chemicals that are put in water to make it safe for people, not for fish. Third, there are many products that will keep the new water cleaner and safer longer, such as activated carbon. If you use activated carbon in a tank, all you have to do is feed your coral a little more and monitor your elemental levels regularly. This is something many coral enthusiasts do. 

In a freshwater tank, carbon takes the place of a protein skimmer. Retailers can buy it in bulk and repackage it in various sizes for people with small and large needs. Many mechanical filters on the market offer proprietary filter cartridges that may or may not contain carbon. Carbon is the fishkeeper’s friend, and retailers can make significant money on it. Buy a large quantity of mesh bags of various sizes, and fill them with a specific amount of carbon. You can make higher margins on handcrafted items like this  than on comparable commercially made products.

Custom-made products in any category create the type of merchandising that will bring customers back again and again. If you have something that your competitors do not offer, and it works and is reasonably priced, people will come. You will have invented a version of the better mouse trap.

Most people will also need help measuring the important parameters of water chemistry. And not only do they need the products, they need help learning how to use the testing materials. Even something as simple as a refractometer or a hydrometer can be confounding to a beginner.

The type of fish a customer has is another factor to consider when educating fish owners on water quality. For example, bettas have one very important water quality parameter that is rarely met. They prefer water at a temperature of 80 degrees, and 95 percent of the bettas being sold are not handled properly. Betta tanks require heaters if for no other reason than to keep the temperature stable. 

Bettas are not alone in this requirement. All tropical fish will benefit from a steady temperature. The vast majority of fish prefer water that is 78 to 82 degrees, which is not room temperature for most people. For this reason, aquarium heaters should be displayed in the aisle with other water quality products.

Having the products people need to maintain proper water quality is crucial, but the biggest challenge may be inspiring them to do the more time-consuming and tedious tasks required. Many people merely clean their filters, rarely change their water and almost never actually clean the tank. Cleaning the tank includes gravel-washing the substrate, scraping all the algae off the aquarium glass, scrubbing algae from rocks, soaking ornaments in a benign cleaning solution, changing the filter media, and doing a 50 percent or more water change. This should be done a minimum of twice a year—even better, four times annually. Think how much your store can profit from customers following a tank-cleaning regime of this magnitude. However, it is up to you to make them believers, and it requires a good deal of persuasion to motivate people to do the right thing for their fish.

Lastly, keep in mind that fish food and the act of feeding the fish have a direct impact on aquarium water. The type of foods aquarium keepers choose, how often they feed and how much they feed will all influence their tanks’ water quality. 

Let’s say you only feed your fish once a day at 9 p.m. in a tank that is set up in a room that gets natural light in the morning when the fish wake up. By 9 p.m., the fish are starving, and if they are fed frozen mysis shrimp, for instance, the fish will not have enough time to clean up any leftovers by 10 p.m. when the tank lights go out. 

It would be better to feed the fish a prepared food within an hour of when you wake up in the morning, when the fish will be most hungry. However, if they don’t finish the food, it should maintain its physical integrity for several hours until they get hungry again. At night, at least two hours before the tank lights go out, feed frozen food. This always makes a bit of a mess, but the water should be clear and all the food consumed in a matter of minutes. If you are going to overfeed any food, it should be a prepared one, such as flakes, pellets, discs or sticks.

To reiterate, you control water quality in an aquarium by feeding the right foods at the right times in the correct frequencies. You do it by making frequent partial water changes, and, finally, you do it by using the proper products for the proper reasons or whenever they are needed. Don’t wait for disaster to strike to be proactive. 


Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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